The exterior of St. Joseph Monastery Church. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun photo, 2014)
Southwest Baltimore Roman Catholics are saddened this Lent and Palm Sunday as they consider the news that the Passionist Fathers will be leaving their neighborhood.
In a letter sent to members of the Irvington parish earlier this year, the Very Rev. Robert Joerger, the provincial of the Passionists, said that it was his difficult duty to say that the members of his order would “no longer shepherd” St. Joseph’s Passionist Monastery, a landmark at Old Frederick Road and Monastery Avenue.
After meeting with officials of Baltimore Archdiocese, the Passionists set a June 30 departure date. Archbishop William E. Lori will preside at a Palm Sunday Mass Sunday at 11 a.m. at the monastery church, one of a cluster of ecclesiastical structures, past and present, that have served the neighborhood since the 1860s. It is quite a legacy and a testament to faith.
On a recent Sunday, some 313 people attended Masses and gave $4,044, according to a church bulletin. The parish is to be operated after June by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Father Joerger reflected on the advanced age of so many members of his religious order, as well as the declining numbers of that order, in the decision to leave Baltimore for other places.
Those not familiar with Roman Catholicism could be confused with its religious orders. Here in Baltimore, we have Jesuits, Benedictines, Franciscans, Josephites, Redemptorists, Sulpicians, to name some. They arrived early. The Sulpician Fathers have owned the same property continuously on Paca Street in Seton Hill since 1791. The Jesuits arrived in Southern Maryland in 1634.
These orders put down deep roots. They also built substantial urban compounds that included rectories, convents, schools and auditoriums.
In 1968, Father Jeremiah plays “Hello Dolly” on the piano as the rector, Father Flavian, enjoys an after-dinner smoke in the priests’ old residence. (Ellis J. Malashuk, Baltimore Sun file photo, 1968)
At this time of the year, nearly 45 years ago, placards advertised “Veronica’s Veil,” a Passion play staged in Whiteford Hall, part of the Passionist Monastery’s campus. It was something of a Lent and Holy Week pilgrimage to visit Irvington for this religious spectacle.
The Passionists, a global order that proclaims that God’s love is revealed through Jesus’ suffering and death, formed a special bond with Southwest Baltimore and its Irvington community shortly after the Civil War. The priests kept detailed records. The first entry in their log shows they had heard that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.
“The entry said that fathers had been careful to remain neutral because feelings ran high on both sides of the war in this part of what was Baltimore County,” said Fred Schneider, a former member of the Passionists and former monastery pastor who remains active in the parish though he is no longer a priest.
The order of priests and brothers came to Baltimore and established their monastery in the city’s western suburbs.
They found a ready benefactor in Emily McTavish, a granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. She gave the priests some of her ancestral land, which the order sold to buy larger grounds. Soon a stone monastery, made from granite quarried locally, rose.
There was no shortage of priests when the Passionists became chaplains to nearby Mount St. Joseph’s High School, the Visitation Nuns at Mount DeSales in Catonsville, the Good Shepherd Sisters and Bon Secours and Mount St. Agnes hospitals. Legend has it that Passionist priest Father Sylvan Brennan nearly converted H.L. Mencken while he was a Bon Secours patient.
About 25 years ago the order closed its actual monastery building (as late as 1968 some 40 priests resided here) although it kept a separate, richly decorated parish church, also named monastery, open and staffed.
Old-timers in the neighborhood recall when there were dozens of priests and brothers living within the walls of this religious enclosure. In pre-air-conditioning era, when people slept with their windows wide open on a hot summer night, Irvington residents would hear the sound of the Divine Office being sung in Gregorian chant daily at 2 a.m.